Eric Warfield had studied hours and hours of film: Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison. Again. Again. Again.
On game day, the former Husker and Kansas City Chiefs cornerback lined up man-to-man on Harrison. Before one specific play, he examined the situation. Studied Harrison's position. His memory told him what was coming: slant.
Warfield was ready to jump the route and get an interception. But someone else knew what Warfield was thinking: Peyton Manning.
“(Harrison) ended up running the slant anyway, but ran it at a different depth,” Warfield said. “Instead of me going up and getting the pick, they threw it over me.”
The week before Brady-Manning XV, The World-Herald interviewed six ex-Huskers who competed professionally against the two quarterback icons. Their commentary proves that Sunday's AFC championship is worthy of the hype. We could be watching the final showdown between the two best quarterbacks of their generation. Who's better? Our guest analysts answer that question — reluctantly.
“Picking one,” ex-linebacker Jay Foreman said, “is like picking between a Porsche and a Ferrari.”
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During parts of his career with Tampa Bay, linebacker Barrett Ruud had the ability to audible, to play the chess match, to get the Buccaneers into something better.
It at least gave the defense a chance against somebody like Peyton Manning. Because Ruud also knew what it felt like after Manning had made all his checks and presnap calls and there was that split-second of eerie silence before the ball was put in play.
"That part's no good, where you're lined up and can't change it and they know what you're doing ... and you know bad things were coming," Ruud said.
Ruud said Indianapolis literally lined up in the same formation the whole game. Manning then called his play based on what the defense showed.
"It wasn't a complicated offense," Ruud said. "Peyton just put them in the right play all the time."
In an effort to combat it, Ruud said defenses often outsmarted themselves. Even got away from what they did best.
"We'd line up in ways we'd never line up, and try to disguise what we were doing," Ruud said. "We'd line up in ways we shouldn't have, and he was still able to figure out what we were doing. It's really impressive what he can see, both before the snap and during the play."
Ruud actually saw Tom Brady more often than Manning during his career. Through those meetings, Ruud noticed how Brady evolved both with his game and how New England used him, depending on personnel around him.
"The genius of Bill Belichick is that he always plays to his strengths," Ruud said, "and Brady knew how to carry that out."
Brady also can throw it a little. In the AFC playoffs a year ago, Ruud (with Houston) had Shane Vereen on a fade route, did most everything right and still gave up a 33-yard TD pass to the pylon. It made Ruud think back to Chicago running the same play in a 2008 game, and Ruud snatching a ball away from Matt Forte because the pass wasn't as perfect.
"You see the difference in great quarterbacks," he said.
Who's better? "There is no wrong answer. I could say Brady, but it'd be absolutely no difference in my mind. To give you an honest answer, I'd have to play with them on a daily basis. From afar, as a defensive player, I thought it was a little tougher playing against Peyton. At the same time, I think I was 0-5 against Brady."
Peyton Manning might have had the fancy and can't-miss pedigree, but Jay Foreman says you can probably trace a lot of Tom Brady's success back to how hard he worked to get it.
Brady was only a sixth-round draft pick (2000), while Manning went No. 1 overall (1998). Brady waited until the third game of his second season with New England to make his first NFL start -- and only because of a Drew Bledsoe injury -- while Manning took over immediately with Indianapolis.
So Brady was never somebody who would back down, which Foreman learned as he got into some extracurricular activity during a 2003 scrum when he was playing linebacker for Houston.
"It wasn't a cheap shot, but I remember being on top of him in the pile ... shaking him, pushing his head into the ground," Foreman said. "And he liked it. He was like, 'Bring it.' "
Foreman calls Brady "the ultimate competitor" who never lost that edge as he worked his way from nobody to regular Super Bowl participant. Motivated by fear. Forced to go earn what he wanted.
"This game here is going to be phenomenal, because if there is a person that can beat Peyton on the road, with depleted receivers and skill-position guys, it's Tom Brady," Foreman said. "Because he's built for this kind of game."
Foreman spent time in the same AFC divisions as Brady and Manning during an eight-year career with four teams. He left with a strong appreciation for what both could do -- and how they'd do it.
"I call them Type-AAA personalities," he said.
Foreman said Manning intimidates defensive coordinators before games start. When they resort to gimmicks, it only gets them out of what they do best.
Brady can dink-and-dunk a defense, Foreman said, "really dissect you." Then, no matter how the game has unfolded the first 58 minutes, he nails the two-minute offense.
"The thing that's different is that the Patriots seem to reinvent themselves every year on offense, and he has to handle that," Foreman said. "Peyton Manning went to Denver and brought his Indianapolis playbook."
Who's better? "Whew. That's a hard question. I guess if I had to pick, I'd go Tom Brady. He's been on better teams than Peyton, but he's played the biggest in the biggest moments, and that's what I like with a quarterback."
Jared Crick was a second-string rookie playing his third NFL game. In the first quarter, a Houston Texans teammate gave the signal -- he needed a breather.
Crick sprinted from the sideline to the defensive front and received his orders. It wasn't until he got into his stance that he looked across the line of scrimmage and the moment hit him.
"That's Peyton Manning back there. That's the guy. I'm on the same field."
Crick was in elementary school when Manning threw his first NFL touchdown pass. He was in junior high when Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl. But over the past two seasons, Crick has faced them a combined five times. He's experienced firsthand what makes them special.
"They're not the most physical guys, they're not the fastest, they don't have the strongest arms. But they know football. They know how to read a defense. They know how to beat a defense. They know pretty much everything there is to know about playing offense."
Yet Crick recognizes differences. Manning tweaks more at the line of scrimmage. Brady usually runs the play that's called, but he tries to gain an edge with quick pace.
Manning is robotic in his precision. He beats you via preparation. Brady, at least in Crick's experience, is more likely to beat a defense with a great throw.
Twice the Texans have had a chance to beat New England. Twice Brady has "pulled something out of his hat" and changed momentum.
"Each time we've almost had 'em," Crick said. "It's just one play that changes the game."
Hopefully, Crick says, he'll see both quarterbacks again next season -- and maybe even get a sack.
"It's a lot of fun going against those guys because you're going against the best in the world," Crick said. "But at the same time, you're going against the best in the world, so it gives you a lot of headaches."
Who's better? "I gotta go with the rings. Tom Brady. Peyton's a great player, but championships don't just come out of nowhere. Brady's a proven champion."
Peyton Manning may be playing the best football of his career as a Denver Bronco. But his incredible chemistry with receivers doesn't happen overnight, Eric Warfield said.
Warfield, who played eight of his nine NFL seasons with Kansas City, said Manning and his wideouts always had something that could trump your scouting.
"I'm sure that's due to the work and work and more work that they put in together," Warfield said. "They don't run normal patterns, especially when he was in Indy. You get some of the most awkward routes that worked out so well for them."
As Manning is calling all those audibles, Warfield said, defensive backs will sometimes get a little anxious and give themselves away. Then Manning, if given time, goes to work.
"Peyton's going to sit there and be patient," Warfield said, "and just pat that ball."
Warfield said former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was best at matching presnap wits with Manning. Others thought they could, but often just ended up tipping their hand or making a bad call.
"(Lewis) knew what to look for and how to show something different," Warfield said. "Some people think they know, they want to know, then all of a sudden you're hit from the blind side with a play out of nowhere."
Although Warfield played against Brady only once, he finished his career with him in New England in 2006. What he appreciated most was how well Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick worked together.
"You think with a guy that's already won three Super Bowls and given you many playoff returns, that he'd be on a different level," Warfield said. "But Coach Belichick treated him just like he treated all the other guys. I respected that and just how that organization's run."
Who's better? "Man, honestly, I'd probably have to go with Peyton. I know he doesn't have the jewelry that Tom has, but I think with a better defense in Indy he could have had many Super Bowl rings. But I have much respect for what Peyton's done for himself and for the NFL. Hard to go wrong with either one of them."
Disguise everything. That's the conventional strategy in facing Peyton Manning.
Make Defense A look like Defense B. Make Defense B look like Defense C. One problem, Scott Shanle said.
"We'd go into games with two or three checks and he'd have us figured out before halftime," said the retired linebacker. "His mental IQ and ability to adjust to defenses is unlike anything I've ever seen."
Take the 2007 NFL opener. Thursday night. National TV. The Saints and Colts were tied at half, 10-10. Then Peyton went crazy. Final score: 41-10.
"He had a check for everything we were doing," Shanle said. "That was my first time playing against Peyton Manning as a starter where I was like, 'Wow, what do you do here?' It was almost like somebody was giving him our plays."
Fast forward 2Ĺ years to Super Bowl XLIV. The Saints scrapped the disguises and worried about their execution.
"We basically went into the Super Bowl and said, we're gonna have two game plans," Shanle said. "We're gonna have a first-half game plan and a second-half game plan. That was the most success we ever had playing against him."
Tom Brady doesn't get as much credit for the mental IQ because he doesn't audible as much as Manning does. But he's just as impressive, Shanle said.
"They roll different receivers in every year, guys you've never heard of, guys who were undrafted free agents. And he turns them all into league-leading catchers. Their offense just continues to click. That's what makes Tom Brady special. They don't miss a beat."
During three training camps, the Saints scrimmaged against the Patriots and Shanle got to see Brady up close.
"He's as competitive a person as I've ever been around. I think he elevates everybody's level of play."
Who's better? "If I had to go into one game and win it, I think I would probably take Peyton Manning. I know his record isn't as good as Tom Brady's and Brady is kind of the clutch guy. But there's something about Peyton Manning where you kind of feel like he's going to take care of everything. Like he's got it all under control."
Zack Bowman notices the difference when a great quarterback breaks the huddle. He can sense the quarterback's calmness. His poise.
"It's a sight to see as a cornerback when they walk up to the line of scrimmage and you're just like, 'Damn, they know what you're running.' As a defensive back at times, it can be a scary feeling."
Bowman, a six-year veteran of the Bears, didn't always think it was so hard. As a rookie in 2008, he watched from the sideline as Chicago beat Peyton Manning in the season opener.
The Bears showed blitz on every play. At the snap, they bailed out and played Cover 2 or Cover 3 or -- occasionally -- went ahead with the blitz. It worked. They held Manning to 257 yards on 49 attempts.
Bowman said the key to defending Manning and Brady is get pressure up front, make them think quickly and unload the ball before they're ready. But there's only so much you can do. When Manning starts checking plays, calling audibles and "dummy audibles," there's no use trying something new.
"As a defense, there isn't anything these guys haven't seen."
So even after Brady came to Soldier Field in 2010 and led a 36-7 blowout of the division-winning Bears, there was a small consolation. Bowman could say he played against a Hall of Famer.
"It's an honor."
Who's better? "I'm going to go with Peyton. When I watched him last Sunday, it just seemed like he was checking into the right play almost every single time."